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Public service industry overview

Emmanuel Payne

With a career in public service comes great responsibility and great conditions.
Public service

A career in the public service has come a long way from the staid, slightly effete, paper-pushing stereotype of days gone by. In 2019, you can work at the provincial, national and even international levels, in roles spanning the most exciting of projects, from creating and enforcing child protection policies, to national security, heritage preservation, and human rights. Whether you’re organising an arts festival for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage or drafting policies in the Beehive, a career in the public service offers you the chance to participate in New Zealand’s rich civic life.   

The grads that are best suited to this kind of work tend to be empathetic people with a strong sense of civic duty. In other words, they’re driven to promote the greater good and make society fairer for all New Zealanders.  

Competition for jobs in this sector can be high due to the reputation that public service careers have earned for being secure; offering excellent work/life balance (shorter hours, flexible working arrangements, and job sharing); paying high salaries and providing opportunities for structured career breaks.

As the government adapts to the digital landscape, recruitment needs are changing accordingly, particularly in customer-facing departments. This is happening across the board, with government portfolios investing in digital platforms as they move toward an efficient self-service model that provides superior value to taxpayers.

Employees in the public service earn a median salary of $70,000, with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $145,000. 

Job market outlook

Growth across public service jobs changes according to one’s target profession and department, but the total number of public services employees is expected to climb. The key factor we’re looking at is graduate roles, and these programs tend to be consistent when it comes to annual intake numbers. As such, there remain many opportunities for talented graduates to enter the public services through structured programs. However, bear in mind that the graduate programs are highly competitive, as reflected in the strong performance of government departments in the Top 100. Public service employers from this year’s Top 100 list include the Ministry of Education (6), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (9), the New Zealand Police (13), the Ministry of Health (14), the Ministry of Social Development (16), and the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (17). 

How to get hired

The recruitment process for public service roles is more involved than with a lot of other industries, so it’s best to get started early and give yourself plenty of time to flesh out your application. Most roles require a current CV and tailored cover letter, as well as a selection criteria statement. Each hiring manager identifies the selection criteria for a role in advance, and candidates must respond (usually in a paragraph) with their relevant skills and experience. This ensures that the government can prove they hired the best possible candidate for each role, without prejudice, should any member of the public question its decisions or hold it accountable for the eventual outcome of a recruitment decision. Your interview will likely involve a panel of at least two people, for similar reasons.

To identify outstanding candidates, most recruiters in the public service will keep an eye out for graduates adept at using the STAR technique. This stands for ‘situation, task, action, result’, and describes a method that candidates can use to share their achievements in a succinct and meaningful way. You can learn more about the STAR technique on the GradNewZealand website. 

Some departments, such as The Treasury, allow graduates to register their interest and receive updates as employment opportunities become available.

Key skills you need

Team-oriented

Government roles involve working with and being accountable to stakeholders at every point, including members of the public. Being a team player will see you getting more done as you bring stakeholders along with you to achieve your objectives. Moving projects from concept to fruition usually requires consensus and approval, usually from a director or steering committee.

Patience

It can take a very long time from initial discussions about a project to seeing it completed, so a patient disposition will do far better in government than someone who is keen to see results immediately.

Ethics

As all funding comes from taxpayers, there is a heavy emphasis on personal and departmental accountability. Government departments must keep long paper trails on all activity, as it is very easy to land yourself in hot water for misuse of funds, equipment and access to information.